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Recent open source hardware trends, from SBCs to servers

Feb 23, 2017 — by Eric Brown 1,858 views

[Updated: Feb. 24] — At ELC Europe, Intel MinnowBoard SBC evangelist John Hawley surveyed open hardware trends, and their impact on OS-enabled device and system development.

When you mention open source hardware, people typically think about community-backed hacker boards. However, the open hardware movement is growing on many fronts, including medical devices, rocketry and satellites, 3D printers, cameras, VR gear, and even laptops and servers. At the Embedded Linux Conference Europe in October, John “Warthog9” Hawley, Intel’s evangelist for the MinnowBoard SBC (until recently), surveyed the key open hardware trends he saw in 2016. The full video, “Survey of Open Hardware 2016,” can be seen below.

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Hawley prefers the strict open hardware interpretation offered by the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHA). The key statement is: “Open source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design.”

Hawley reported that at the Open Hardware Summit held in Portland, Oregon, OSHA had revealed a certification program for open source hardware. Formally announced on November 7, the plan calls for OSHA to issue unique IDs for each piece of registered hardware, including a country code and an ID number.


By OSHA’s definition, some popular community-backed SBCs such as the Raspberry Pi do not qualify as open source, said Hawley. “You can get some schematics for the Raspberry Pi, but you can’t get the Gerber files or remix it for your own purposes,” he said.

Boards that do qualify, he said, include Linux-ready, open spec SBCs like the Intel Galileo and LittleBits CloudBit on the low end and the BeagleBone, Olimex’s OlinuXino, and ADI’s Intel backed MinnowBoard Turbot on the high end. Many other community-backed Linux hacker SBCs, but certainly not all, would also appear to fit the definition.

Arduino boards, many of which now include a Linux-driven component, also qualify. Hawley reported on the breaking news at the time that the two dueling Arduino camps had pledged to reunite. The reunited Arduino will be unveiled at the Arduino Day conference on April 1.

Leading the way in opening up Linux SBCs in 2016 was The Next Thing’s $9 Chip SBC, which raised over $2 million on Kickstarter. said Hawley. The growing use of Kickstarter to launch open-spec hardware was another key 2016 trend, he added.

Calling the Chip developers “the poster children for open source hardware,” Hawley said that The Next Thing releases everything you would need to build your own Chip variant. This includes source code, Gerbers, schematics, and BOM.

“With the Chip, they’ve pioneered new techniques to reduce the cost of hardware,” said Hawley. “For example, they’ve got eMMC, but no eMMC hardware controller. The controller functions are done by software in the CPU.”

While ELCE was in session, The Next Thing unveiled a $16, open-spec computer-on-module version of the Chip called the Chip Pro. It also launched a partially open source system-in-package (SiP) version of the Cortex-A8 Allwinner R8 SoC use on the Chip and Chip Pro called the GR8. For a fully open source SoC, many vendors are turning to the RISC-V project, which may well end up on Hawley’s list of open hardware trends for 2017.

Needed: easier open source PCB design tools

If you attempt to build your own SBCs rather than do what most hobbyist hackers do — write apps and customize the boards with add-ons — you will discover the rewards of “solving your own itches,” said Hawley. He noted, however, that it’s easier to delete a feature from a design than to add one.

The process of building your own board is challenged by the lack of easy, open source PCB design and layout tools. With lower end, two-layer PCBs, you can turn to the open source KiCad, but higher end boards with PCI-Express and differential pair routing usually require expensive professional tools, said Hawley.

KiCad’s workflow and UI are still difficult, but improving, said Hawley, echoing the thoughts of Grant Likely in an ELC 2016 North America session on embedded Linux. “A lot of entities are working to improve KiCad, such as CERN, which is adding differential pair, push-pull routing,” said Hawley.

On the 10-layer MinnowBoard, the only way to get at files beyond Gerbers is to work with high-end tools like OrCAD, said Hawley. “Eagle probably couldn’t handle it well, and porting it to KiCad would be a bit of a nightmare because it doesn’t handle that kind of complexity very well,” he added.

Autodesk’s proprietary Eagle tools are friendlier and more affordable than many, such as the high-end Altium, said Hawley. The BeagleBone Black now supports Eagle for a 4- or 6-layer board, he added.

An audience member related that Olimex was beginning to add KiCad support to its OlinuXino SBCs. Olimex also recently announced an open source Teres I laptop.

Open source hardware beyond SBCs

Open source hardware adoption and creation is accelerating, and not only in the SBC market, said Hawley. He reported on several presentations at the Open Hardware Summit, especially in the field of medical devices. Open spec medical gear is finally taking off, despite the challenge of extensive regulation and certification that can add years to product development, said Hawley.

One Open Hardware Summit presentation demonstrated an under-$100 open hardware device that surgeons can use to practice suturing techniques. You stick your finger into the device to learn how to apply just the right amount of pressure to sutures.

There was also a presentation about HACKberry’s dual-licensed, 3D printable prosthetic hand. This relatively affordable solution is particularly helpful for kids who typically go through several expensive prosthetic models as they grow. “It’s a modular system so you can replace the hookup with a slightly bigger one, and you can more easily customize it,” said Hawley.

Also at the Summit, the Portland State Aerospace Society talked about open source rocketry and satellites, and the U.S. National Park Service discussed its rapid adoption of open source hardware. “The Park Service is choosing open source hardware because it lowers the cost of putting together demos and interactive exhibits, and lets them more easily share designs with other parks and museums,” said Hawley.

Perhaps the biggest open hardware announcement of 2016 came from the server world, said Hawley. In March, Google joined Facebook’s Open Compute Project (OCP), a consortium of companies including Microsoft, that is developing standardized, open source equipment such as switches and servers.

“OCP is designing open hardware to cut down on costs, power usage, and thermal usage in data centers,” said Hawley. “They cut out the unnecessary parts of servers — I once saw a server with a sound card on it — so when they sit idle they won’t vampire power. Idling systems also generate heat, so you have to spend more on cooling.” Facebook and Google have each released other open source hardware devices, including Google’s Cardboard VR and Facebook’s Surround360 3D-360 video capture system.

Hawley said he tries to convince manufacturers to open source their hardware designs, or at the very least, open up the designs once end of life is at hand. “Instead of abandoning products, they should chuck them over the fence into open source,” he said. Not only is this friendlier to users and developers, but it enables the open source community to update the products for security. “Otherwise they make a great platform for DDOS attacks.”

Watch the complete presentation below:

Survey of Open Hardware, 2016

Embedded Linux Conference + OpenIoT Summit North America will be held on February 21 – 23, 2017 in Portland, Oregon. Check out over 130 sessions on the Linux kernel, embedded development and systems, and the latest on the open Internet of Things.

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